Saturday, August 13, 2016

Reading by ear

Is listening to an audio book the same as reading the print version? Writer and reader Melissa Dahl consults with UVA psychologist Daniel Willingham on the vexing question:
The TL;DR version of all of this is that as far as the mental processes are concerned, there really isn’t much difference between reading and listening to a book. One is not more work than the other. And yet there is, maybe, something to the way your elementary-school teacher might’ve phrased the question — you’re only cheating yourself. Returning for a moment to the simple model of reading: The decoding process does become automatic once you’ve passed a certain level of reading proficiency, but you can become even better at this well into adulthood — and the only way to get better is by reading. The improvements are small (“infinitesimal,” as Willingham put it) but they are there, and up for the grabs for a reader. Comprehension, too, is something that improves the more you read. And there are also, of course, times when you need to remind yourself of something farther back in the text, something that is no longer held in that one- to two-second echoic memory. (Which Greyjoy is Victarion, again?) You could pause the audiobook and hit that 15-second rewind button until you find it. But you probably won’t.
The literary value of audiobooks versus print books — that’s up for wider interpretation. But there’s another way to consider the question of cheating, one that, incidentally, annoys Willingham the most. On my commute this week, for example, I began listening to H Is for Hawk, and so some might argue that, once I’m done, I can’t claim to have really “read” it. “There are people who think of reading as a sort of achievement, a mark of honor that you’ve done something worthy of respect,” Willingham said. “There’s this sense that when you have read a book, you’ve done something that is worthy of pride, and it is worthy of other people patting you on the back.”
This, to his mind, is nonsense, a holdover from elementary-school days. “You know, there are classrooms that are set up with that very much in mind,” he said. “There’s a reader wall and you get a star next to your name every time you finish a book, and the number of books is counted. And I think some of that feeling in adults may be … a hangover from prior school experiences.” It’s a rather sad way to view reading as an adult, he contends, and he has a point. After all, grown-ups can’t exchange a list of books they’ve read for a free personal pan pizza.
I'm a big fan of audio books on road trips; they make better use of my time than yet another hour of radio chatter about the latest tweets from trump and give me access to works I probably would not otherwise read, for lack of time or inertia. And of course, the practice of lecturing, embedded in the etymology of the word itself, goes back to the pre-Gutenberg age when books were so expensive that students simply listened to their teachers reading to them, while they tried to note down what they heard as best they could. For centuries, the educated (at least in Europe) acquired the scholarly tradition more by ear than by eye. And of course, the blind 'read' by ear, and have for centuries.

Nonetheless,it may be misleading to say that I have read a book that I have in fact listened to. This is not a knock on audiobooks, but an implicature of the word "read". We need a neutral term to cover the act of 'consuming' a book, whether by eyes or ears. Suggestions?

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